I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. These two authors seem like an odd pairing. Sir Pratchett is one of the greats of humorous fantasy but certainly isn’t known for hard science fiction. Mr. Baxter is a leading light in hard science fiction and alternate history but he’s certainly not known for his comedic chops.
I’m happy to report that I enjoyed their first collaboration very much. This is a fine science fiction novel.
The Long Earth is a rather literal take on the multiverse theory—one day, people all over the world learn how to “step” into alternate Earths. There are uncounted millions—possibly an infinity—of these alternate Earths, and humanity eagerly spreads out into them. Most people require a device to step across to these other worlds, but some can step naturally, and some can’t cross the boundaries at all.
The strangest thing is that none of these other Earths have any humans in them—although there are other humanoid creatures out there…
The main plot of the book follows a natural stepper, Joshua, as he explores the Long Earth in a state-of-the-art zeppelin, in the company of a super-intelligent artificial intelligence, Lobsang, who’s probably the reincarnation of Tibetan mechanic. There are also several secondary stories woven through the narrative, to highlight different aspects of humanity’s expansion.
I love the concept behind The Long Earth. The multiverse environment sets a wonderful stage for imaginative storytelling. The narrative structure effectively opens this fascinating world and allows for unimpeded exploration—plenty of room for these hugely creative writers to let loose their visions.
Like any good set piece in the hands of talented writers, The Long Earth ultimately explores questions about politics and culture, identity, and human nature itself.
The characters throughout are as compelling as one would expect from authors of this caliber. It’s always good to discover new worlds in the company of interesting people. The “Odd Couple”-esque relationship between Joshua and Lobsang is particularly delightful.
It’s clear that this novel isn’t an ego trip for either author. Too often when you have collaborations between writers of this caliber, it’s more a PR stunt than anything else—the names are more important than the product. Not so with The Long Earth. It’s clear that both Sir Pratchett and Mr. Baxter just wanted to write a good story.
There are some noticeable flaws with this work, however.
The secondary narrative threads occasionally intrude on the main story. Especially at the beginning, the book jumps between its different narrative threads too haphazardly, jumbled and unfocused. All of these threads tie together and pay off in the end—none are extraneous—but the transitions from one to the other are sometimes unprovoked. This makes it more difficult than it should be to get into the flow of the story.
The other problem for me is the tone of the writing. This novel can’t seem to figure out whether or not it’s supposed to be funny. Even Mr. Baxter’s type of serious SF can have a sense of humor, but that’s different than the kind of comedic writing that’s Sir Pratchett’s métier. There are a few moments throughout when the book feels like it’s being pulled too far into the realm of comedy. This novel has a healthy dose of the ridiculous at its core (a reincarnated Tibetan as a super-intelligent AI who loves old movies, for example) but it’s not comedic SF. Most of the time, the hard science fiction and the humor work together to generate a nice harmony—but there are discordant notes, too, moments when these styles conflict.
Perhaps that’s inevitable in any collaborative work.
Ultimately, these problems do nothing to detract from the fascination of the Long Earth. The strengths of the concept, the story, and the characters are more than enough to overcome the few flaws of execution in the writing.
The Long Earth is a fine science fiction novel.